Having acquired the bulk of my higher education in the politically turbulent late 1960s, I learned to observe and enjoy those occasionally eccentric political and social reforms that eventually turn inward on themselves and self-destruct while often achieving their ultimate goal in spite of themselves. That can seldom be applied in any form to anything to do with antiques furniture, but there was one instance where it was true.
Throughout most of our history, furniture styles have been dictated either by function or by the delicate sensibilities of a self-appointed few. Usually the “taste” crowd is involved in change simply for the sake of change. It’s sort of the “designer’s job-security program.” But in the middle of the 19th century, a social movement slowly worked its way to the light that resulted in a major new lifestyle, expressing itself most noticeably in furniture fashion but influencing many other areas of everyday living. It started not with the intention of merely changing styles but with the intention of actually improving the quality of life for the middle class.
As is common with movements of this sort, the idea started with other than the middle class, which probably didn’t even realize that it needed its life improved so drastically. By midcentury in England, many of those who cared about such things were increasingly uneasy about the excesses emerging as the Victorian era came into full bloom. Mass production of almost everything was the inevitable result of the Industrial Revolution.
One of the most influential of the “uneasies” was John Ruskin (1819-1900), the pampered son of a wealthy merchant who indulged his passion for art and travel and became especially vocal on the relationship between art and morality. He held forth that art had reached its moral peak in the purity of the Middle Ages and a return to such simple, honest times should be explored and encouraged. He felt that individual artists and craftsmen working on individual projects, if left to their own devices, free of capitalistic influences, would produce morally pure works.
Two of Ruskin’s contemporaries picked up on the essence, if not the totality, of his message and translated it to everyday affairs. Charles Eastlake (1836-1906) jumped on the “return to simplicity” bandwagon and published an accumulation of articles as his book, “Hints on Household Taste,” in 1868. William Morris (1834-1896), on the other hand, took a more practical approach in simplifying the English lifestyle. He formed the decorative-arts firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861, and the organization soon became recognized for its stained-glass and wallpaper designs. By the mid-1870s, the company had an office in Boston, the heart of the early American “Arts and Crafts” movement. Soon after founding the firm, Morris designed, or at least took credit for, the famous “Morris chair,” based on a traditional pattern but using his simplified approach to quality—simply designed, simply built, sturdy, comfortable and extremely serviceable.
Morris chair—The Morris chair, developed by William Morris, was the epitome of the philosophy of the soon-to-be Arts and Crafts Movement. It was simple, inexpensive and effective. This example was made by Gustav Stickley. (Treadway photo
The idea of the chair, as well as other furniture designed by the firm, was to produce a well-made, handcrafted product that would present the middle class with an honest-value alternative to Victorian fluff for its hard-earned money. Ironically, such “one off” craftsmanship was relatively no cheaper than that it is now, and most people simply could not afford Morris’ return to simplicity.
By the end of the 1870s, influenced by Morris and Eastlake and by the English movement, small colonies of Arts and Crafts artisans had established themselves in America, primarily around Boston and Cincinnati, producing small amounts of furniture and artifacts that reflected the simpler tastes and high ideals of the founders but often encountering the same resistance as had Morris—it just cost too much. The movement’s greatest influence in America in the last quarter of the century was in architecture, producing a new level of the combination of art and practicality in “modern” American homes.
The movement in America didn’t really catch on until it was espoused by Elbert Hubbard, brother-in-law of John D. Larkin, of mail-order soap-and-furniture fame. It was Hubbard who had devised the famous coupon/premium scheme for Larkin’s soap business. Hubbard visited William Morris in England in 1893/1894 and became a confirmed subscriber to the movement just as it was dying out in England. He returned to America and opened the Roycroft Press and artistic community in East Aurora, N.Y., in 1895. The “Roycrofters” were devoted to the ideas of simplicity, substance and directness in their works as advocated by Morris. Like many of the early artisan colonies, however, the Roycrofters, while producing many artifacts along the preferred philosophical lines, could not produce goods in the economic quantities required for long-term survival, no matter how unique and well made the individual pieces turned out to be.
The movement would have to wait for the next idea to carry it to the people.
– Fred Taylor is the American furniture Worthologist and an expert in furniture restoration. He’s published numerous articles on antiques on WorthPoint and in “Antique Trader,” “Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine,” “Northeast Magazine, “Victorian Decorating and Lifestyles,” “Professional Refinishing” and “The Antique Shoppe Newspaper.” Read more about Fred on his Worthologist profile, and check out his book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” and Fred and Gail Taylor’sDVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture” on their very informative Web site, Furniture Detective.
Other articles by Fred Taylor:
Identifying Wood Species—Part I
Identifying Wood Species—Part II
Identifying Wood Species—Part III
A Fortune from the Kitchen Table